by Casey Nelson Blake, Professor of History, Columbia University and Senior Historian, The Armory Show at 100

Robert Edmond Jones, The Pageant of the Paterson Strike, Madison Square Garden, New York, June 7, 1913. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Robert Edmond Jones, The Pageant of the Paterson Strike, Madison Square Garden, New York, June 7, 1913. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

1913 was a year of modernist spectacle.  The Armory Show opened February 17th, The “Rite of Spring” debuted in Paris on May 29th, and on June 7th one thousand striking textile workers from Paterson, New Jersey performed a play about their struggle at Madison Square Garden.  The Paterson Strike Pageant may seem an incongruous entry in the year’s ledger of iconic events.  But for the 15,000 in attendance, the Pageant was a thrilling moment when radical politics energized a revolutionary new theater.

Together with feminism, solidarity with Paterson’s multiethnic working class defined the politics of the Greenwich Village intelligentsia.  In April, Village fixture Mabel Dodge suggested to Bill Haywood that the Industrial Workers of the World stage a performance to call attention to strikers’ demands and the violent response of local authorities.   Journalist John Reed rushed to Paterson, landed briefly in jail for resisting police, and then spent three hectic weeks collaborating with workers on a narrative of the conflict.

On June 7th, the strikers paraded up Fifth Avenue and into the Garden, continued through the audience and onto a stage set with a mural of the factory town reportedly painted by John Sloan. They re-enacted their experiences, sang in multiple languages, and led the crowd in the “Marseilles” and the “Internationale.”  Spectators became participants, as the “fourth wall” between actors and audience dissolved along with the wall between “art” and “life.” A reporter found “a startling touch of ultra modernity…of futurism” in the event.  Robert Edmond Jones’s program cover had a striker climbing out of the frame towards the viewer. Red lights hung on the Garden’s tower broadcast “IWW” into the darkness. “Crude and rather terrifying,” Randolph Bourne recalled, the Pageant “stamped into one’s mind the idea that a new social art was in the American world, something genuinely and excitingly new.”

Casey Nelson Blake, Professor of History, Columbia University, and Senior Historian, The Armory Show at 100

Recommended reading:

Steve Golin, The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

Martin Green, New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988).

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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